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My eyelashes fluttered against my cheeks, so light that I almost didn’t feel them at all. My body was relaxed, so loose that I could have been a long-forgotten piece of clothing, thrown away at the first hint of a summer sky, and my breath was even and shallow. In spite of my outward appearance of being completely unconscious, my mind was roaring within the confines of my skull, screaming and thrashing as if to escape it’s strong prison.

Exhaustion could easily be given to worry for my ‘uncle’, a night fretting on the couch hardly good for a young girl. My foul demeanor that was rather inevitable could also be just nerves, not to mention the stresses of school and Quidditch may be finally getting to me. Every aspect of me was a pretense, a lie; something that was invented to serve whatever purposes that I needed them to.

I resisted the urge to sigh as I turned over and buried my face in my pillow, effectively blocking it from view. My eyes slid open and stared into the musty fabric, already starting to ache with the closeness of it.

The footsteps that dragged me into this position in the first place grew louder before the sound of a body moving into the room became audible, making me force myself into a state of motionlessness once again. I felt something move close to me, near my head, and barely resisted the stiffening instinct that scratched at my limbs.

Then something, rough and forceful, clouted me across the back of my head.

I hissed and flinched, reaching up and grabbing the hand before it could vanish completely. There was a gasp of surprise before a voice – of course, that voice – said, “Let go, you raging bitch. Jesus, you’d think I had just tried to kill you or something!”

“For all I know,” I groaned as I sat up, twisting my head to the side to I could glower up into the bright sunlight, “you might have.”

“Bloody drama queen.” P.J. rolled her eyes and swung her leg over the couch I lounged on. Then she dropped herself down, lying across my knees and effectively crushing my legs. “Relax, Princess. We’re not in whatever war zone it is that you came from – this is Hogwarts, where the only danger is being molested by torrents of hormonal boys.”

“Not much of a danger.” I shifted and pulled on my legs until I tugged them free, curling them beneath me and leaning as far back as I could without seeming insulting. P.J. didn’t even arch her eyebrows at me as she crossed her arms behind her head and stared across the room thoughtfully, watching the young rays slicing through dust motes. The morning was still a child, still learning how to lift itself to its feet; we both regarded it with a sense of wariness that was bordering on uncomfortable in the similarity between our faces.

“You have pretty shitty luck,” she finally said, blinking tiredly before reaching up to rub her face. “If I believe everything that comes out of your mouth, that is.”

“Why shouldn’t you?” I asked, biting my tongue against an attitude.

“Why should I? Why do I have any good reason to really trust you?”

I couldn’t stop myself – the quip was too there for me to deny it. “Because I haven’t told James that you’re in love with him.”

You could have heard a pin drop on the ground a mile away with the silence that sprang up between us, P.J.’s eyes going wide as she stared at me in absolute horror. “What did you just say?” she gasped.

I wanted to laugh, to toss my head back and snort for hours at the expression on her face. But I forced my face into blankness as I leaned back, holding myself by my elbows. “Don’t worry, Patricia,” I said as cheerlessly as possible. “I’m not going to spill your secret to him.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You know, generally when you like a boy, you’re supposed to act like you like him, not pretend that we’re all still little kids on the playground and try to pull his hair out.”

She flushed in an interesting combination of anger and embarrassment, looking away from me and watching the far wall. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” she snapped.

“Maybe I know more than you think I do. P.J., there isn’t anything between James and I. I don’t know if that’s why you hate me so much or not, but we’re just friends. You know how James is – he’s touch-oriented. He acts the same way he does with me with everyone else. There’s no reason for you to suspect that there’s anything… non-platonic between us.”

“Don’t you dare pity me,” she snapped, looking at the ground and letting her hair fall into her face. “I’m not some… stupid little fool who doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“But you’re acting like it.” I glowered when she turned to look at me, a retort on her lips that died quickly. “You need to treat your friends right if you want to have any hope of keeping them.”

“You don’t need to lecture me, Riley – I’m not six.”

“You seem very intent on telling me all of the things you aren’t, instead of all of the things you are.”

“That’s because I assume you know everything that I am.” Abruptly, she sighed and leaned her head against the side of the couch, the image of pure dejection. “I’m tired of having to hate you, Elaina. I don’t want to second-guess everything you do, searching for a motive. I’d like to actually, you know… try to be cordial.”

“Then why not? It’s not like you’re going to lose anything.” I smiled, finally letting my humor at the situation come free. “P.J., I’m not the horrible person you think I am. At least, I don’t think so. We’re enough alike that we could get along, so why not give it a shot? I wouldn’t mind being your friend.” She stiffened slightly and I held up my hands, immediately amending, “If not your friend, than I would really enjoy not being your enemy.”

P.J. thought about it for a minute, frowning heavily before sighing. “We may as well give it a shot,” she grumbled, rubbing her palms against her calves nervously. “Besides, if we’re friends, maybe you’ll confide in me and I can use it against you later.”

“That might have worked, if you hadn’t just told me your plan.”

That brought about another smile as she rose to her feet, stretching until her shoulders popped. “I’m going to go get dressed, and maybe finish up my Transfig homework. Probably should have done that yesterday, but oh well.” She shrugged. “You might want to change your clothes, too; yours are kind of wrinkled.”

“Maybe in a bit. We still have time.”

P.J. nodded and started back towards the staircase before pausing, glancing back. “Elaina?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sure your uncle is okay. Sometimes, life gets really shitty, but… even Fate isn’t that cruel.”

Then she was gone, walking up the staircase until she disappeared somewhere above my head.

I sighed and slumped, closing my eyes for the briefest instant of awe-inspiring relief. Could it even be possible that P.J. might not want to kill me anymore? That she was actually considering becoming a friend of mine? It was almost too much to hope for – a small thing to make my job easier.

I waited for another second before reaching beneath me and pulling out my mother’s diary, running my hands over the warmth and smiling down at it. I had barely put a dent in it the night before, each page she had written containing enough information to fill a chapter in a real book. It had started with the story of how she met my father – how the shop she worked in had an infestation of Croutlumps, how my dad had been called in to fix it, how he had walked in to find her using a broom to beat them back and how she had refused to leave when he instructed her to. How, together, they had worked and banished the creatures from the building.

Then came the story of their courtship. My father, brave in the face of flesh-eating beasts and fire-breathing monsters, quailed at the thought of being alone in the same room as a beautiful woman. And, though my mother never admitted to it, she was beautiful; my long, dark hair, but she had softer edges than I could ever hope to boast. He started coming to her shop, buying strange items that she recorded in her journal that made me wonder if she worked on the wrong side of the tracks; spell books, knives, bullets, holy water. At first, their interaction was minimal, “That will be five galleons,” and “Do you have any of these for an AK-47?” Then, the small chatter started with, “How's the work treating you?” or, “It's blisteringly cold out there.” Eventually, it lead to him staying at the shop for hours, talking and flirting shamelessly as his confidence grew.

By the time he finally asked her out to dinner, her heart was already his.

I tried to imagine their love, their headlong-sprinting relationship that barely took a few months. She was a healer still learning her trade, signed up for the military so that she could afford schooling; when things blew up in Egypt and she was sent to battle the darkness rising there, my father volunteered to go with her as long as he was at her side. He was her guardian, protecting her as she slaved over injured soldiers on the front line; they survived together.

When they returned, six months into their relationship, they got married. Her father hadn't approved, so they eloped to Monte Carlo, had a beautiful honeymoon, and he started teaching her the art of his trade. She quit her job at the shop, retired from the military, and learned everything my father could show her. Between taming Everdries and killing rogue Smallards, I was conceived; I had to skip over that section of the text, something about invading that much of my father's privacy so repulsive that I almost vomited.

And that was when P.J. had found me – the night of my own conception, flipping through the pages until I found where the action began again. There was nothing I wanted more than to open the book again, read all about what creatures my mother faced – but my interaction with the girl had reminded me of a painful truth. I was back to being Ella Riley, seeker for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, stunning student and friend to many.

I sighed and slid the journal into my bag, rising to my feet and wandering up into the dorm. The girls were all awake now, scrambling to dress themselves and get into the bathroom before the others used up the hot water; I smiled at their haste... until I caught sight of myself in the mirror.

Curls greasy, face sweaty, clothes so dingy that I couldn't believe that I was in them. I shuddered and went to go shove my head in a sink, the showers already taken. As I slowly tried to make myself publicly presentable, a hushed conversation met my ears; one whispered in shower stalls, trusting the water to make it so that they weren't overheard. I paused, pulling my ears free of the stream and closing my eyes to improve my hearing.

“I'm just worried, that's all,” Annalie was saying, her sweet voice cracking slightly.

“About what? She's a big girl.” P.J. swore, a bar of soap hitting the ground with a resonating thump.

“Well, with everything that's going on with her uncle, and all of the pressure we're putting on her with Quidditch... I just don't think that it's very healthy, that's all.”

“She can take care of a little stress, Liar. She was her mother's nursemaid for years, after all.”

“But she isn't used to this kind of stress. She just moved here, for Pete's sake.”

“She got here a few months ago - “

“Almost three.”

“See? She's had plenty of time to make the adjustment.”

“Sometimes I wonder.” I knew Annalie was frowning, just by the way her voice sounded. I felt my fists clench against the counter as I waited, my breathing shallow.

“I used to be the suspicious one – now you are? What's the deal?”

“There's a difference between suspicion and concern, Patricia.”

“It seems the same to me.”

“But it isn't.” Annalie sighed. “The game against Ravenclaw is coming up quickly, and I don't want her to wear herself out before she even gets to the air.”

“She won't. Have you seen how fit that girl is? I swear, if I had her body...”

I blushed violently, turning off the tap and grabbing a towel to rub my head with.

“That, and there's the whole thing with the boys...” P.J. continued slowly.

“What about the boys? And which boys?”

“All of them. You see how they look at her.”

“Does she have anything going on with any of them?”

“Not that I've heard. Do you think she knows?”

“Her head's so high in the clouds sometimes, especially when it comes to things like this... remember, she hasn't experienced anything quite like Hogwarts before.” Annalie sighed.

P.J. did, too. “I still feel like there's something she isn't telling us.”

“There are probably lots of things. She doesn't really trust us yet.”

“Do you blame her? She was here for a few months and James recruited her for Quidditch, Conner O'Brian started following her around like a stray puppy, and everyone in our group just dumps all of their problems on her as if she can make them all better.”

There was a pause as two shower faucets were turned off, the silence filling the space between deafening as I refused to move, listening with every ounce of me.

“Maybe things will get better after the match.” Annalie said hopefully. “When there's less stress.”

“If you say so, Liar.”

I snatched a towel from the rack beside the door and quickly ducked out of the room before they could discover me eavesdropping. I worked on rubbing my curls dry, trying to keep an innocent expression on my face when they reappeared a few minutes later, wrapped in towels and steam.

“The bathroom open?” I asked, smiling.

“Sure, go on in.” Annalie said as she reached for her robes.

I went into the bathroom and closed the door behind me, leaning forward and pressing my palms against the counter. As I stared at myself in the mirror, a painful truth washed over me like a wave.

I have to take care of the beast. Now.

I was surprised by how much that hurt.


 

I stopped pretending that I was just another student walking the halls of Hogwarts, eager to learn and make friends and flirt with boys who flirted back. I dove head-first into my search for the beast, only coming up for breath between classes and during mealtimes.

I stopped actually trying on my homework, instead half-assing everything in the few spare minutes I allowed myself, turning in exactly what the teachers were looking for with only a fraction of the effort put in to it. Instead, I spent that time in the Restricted Section of the library, going through bestiaries that smelled like mold and old mythological books that seemed to be written on human skin. I crossed-referenced everything I could think of pertaining to burning creatures, demons, even ghosts – everything came up empty. I began dedicating more and more time to reading my mother's journal, deciphering the slanted script and searching for some kind of a hint of what might come.

Business had picked up for her and Dad around the time of my conception, because stories of morning sickness were thin between the descriptions of monsters the two had to rush of to deal with. I searched desperately for anything that could possibly match the beast, but nothing that Mom seemed to have dealt with even looked close to the same.

I threw myself into Quidditch with a new abandon, using the physical strain to train myself in a way I had yet to experience. Dad and I were always working out, always sparing, but flying on a broomstick was something I hadn't ever done before – and I welcomed it. Flying used muscles that you wouldn't dream of, resulting in a pleasant soreness each and every morning.

As much as I wanted to, I didn't abandon my friends as I let myself becomes consumed with research. I sat with them during meals, laughing and chattering in ways as lighthearted as possible; I joined their plots for parties and pranks, even offering suggestions.

A week passed before anything remotely interesting happened, but when it did it came in the form of a letter from my father. In the evening, while I was working my way through a large stack of books I had gathered for the night from the Restricted Section, an owl appeared outside the window, tapping furiously as it was buffeted by the wind. Annalie jumped to her feet and ran to help it, throwing the window open and allowing it to flutter inside.

“I think it's from your uncle,” she said, taking the letter from it's leg and walking over to me.

I grabbed it eagerly, ripping open the seal and moving closer to the fire so to examine it better. My father's usually hasty script was neater this time, as if he actually took a few minutes to write it out – which, considering his injuries, he probably had.


 

Ella,

I just got word from Arcel. He wants to see you and talk to you about something, maybe sell you some stuff that can help you with your little problem. He knows what he's doing, so I would trust him. Buy what you have to, but have him put it on my tab; I'll pay it off when I get moving again. Take care, be safe, and for God's sake keep in contact with me.

Love,

Dad


 

I read it twice, then nodded to myself. I tucked the letter away and met Annalie's eye evenly, smiling as I said, “Don't worry. He's just bored.”

“I take it he's getting better?”

“Yes.”

“That's good.” She settled in beside me again, reading some paperback novel that she refused to let me see the cover of. But by the name on the spine, I could tell it was a dime-a-dozen romance novel, probably with a rippling-muscled bronzed youth on the front.

I wanted to rush off to Arcel immediately, but something was stopping me – and that something was the knowledge that we were taking to the air in the Quidditch pitch the next morning. If it had been any other day, I would have gone, but... I didn't dare disappoint my friends by not being there in time to play against Ravenclaw.

I looked at the storm going on just beyond our common room and sighed, the slightest tremor of unease running up my spine. Quidditch had been going wonderfully, really, but... how was I supposed to fly in something like that? It was the only reason I had tonight off of practice; because James had loudly denied Oak the right to take me out into the storm, swearing that I would catch my death and be unable to play.

Just as my thoughts turned to them, there was a large bang and the portrait hole flew open, the two boys and Rhyad stumbling through and dripping with mud. James saw us and walked to our side, panting, while Oak and Rhyad wandered along behind us and leaned against the back of the couch.

“And where have you boys been?” I asked, snatching up one of my books before James could dribble all over it.

“The pitch. It's completely under water – the locker rooms are flooded, and the green is nothing but mud.” Oak replied, shaking his head like a dog and spraying droplets into the fire. “Tomorrow is going to be hell if this keeps up.”

“Maybe it won't,” Annalie said hopefully, gaining three doubtful looks. “Well, maybe!”

“If you say so, Anna,” James said, pulling his wand out of his robes and staring to cast a quick drying charm. “Anyway, on our way up, the caretaker caught us and got into a right huff about us tracking mud all over the place, so we had to run for it to get away from him detention free.”

“You all have it so hard,” Annalie said, making me snort. When dry, James dropped down between us and stretched out, watching as the boys above us mimicked his example. Then they settled in, pressing close as if to let us feel their presence physically.

Abruptly, the book in my hands was jerked away, James checking his cover and frowning. “Dark Magical Beasts Facing Extinction in the Twentieth Century? Why are you reading this? It's not exactly, you know, normal Hogwarts stuff.”

I shrugged, reaching out and grabbing it from him. “I've been thinking about becoming a beast tamer,” I said.

“A beast timer? Why?”

“Because I've somehow survived hanging around you lot for this long, so I might be able to survive something trying to eat my head off.”

Annalie laughed while the boys booed me, James and Oak making large X symbols with their arms while Rhyad shook his head. I laughed and swatted James with the book, burying myself back in it as I resumed where I had left off. P.J. wandered into our little squashed pile eventually, working her way through the homework she had been assigned.

This was oddly peaceful, I realized as I flipped through a section strictly about water beasts. I had spent time sitting with my father, studying old texts or looking up spells, but it hadn't felt like this... like pure companionship.

“Ready for tomorrow?” James asked quietly.

There was a murmur of consent, all of us nodding or grumbling or doing something to agree. I didn't respond otherwise, busy looking for the description of a beast with fire eyes.

A few hours later, Oak herded us upstairs, telling us that if we didn't get into bed and sleep he would flay us alive. I told him that beating us wouldn’t help him win the match any quicker, making him snicker – he said he would bring in replacements or something.

I decided not to point out that he had no replacements.

I didn't sleep well that night, but it had nothing to do with nerves; when you've been in my business for as long as I have, you tend to stop getting worried about things to come. Instead, it was the wind, harsh against the side of the castle, and the fact that the book pressing against my head from beneath my pillow called to me – my wand came out and I read my mother's diary quietly, flipping pages and smiling at her vivid descriptions.

I rose early, earlier than anyone else in the dorm room, and got dressed quietly. Then I wandered downstairs, abandoning the common room for the Great Hall.

It was almost silent there, the ceiling just showing the pink morning light and a few students sleeping at their tables. I settled down and watched the clouds overhead, running my fingers along the edge of the table just to get the feel of it into my head.

“You must be suicidal.”

I flinched and glanced up, relaxing instinctively as Connor sat down beside me. “Hey,” I said, smiling. “What's up?”

“Why are you awake? Shouldn't you be snoozing, getting ready for the match later?”

“Shouldn't you be doing the same? You have a long afternoon of cheering your team on, after all.”

“As true as this is, I had a bunch of papers that I know I won't want to do tomorrow. They kept me up – now what's your excuse.”

I shrugged. “I'm still not sold on this whole 'sleep' thing.”

“Really? I would have thought sitting through History of Magic would have made you a firm believer.”

I laughed and he grinned, looking extraordinarily pleased with himself. “Are you ready?” he asked after a moment, sitting down beside me. “For the match, I mean. You must be a little nervous.”

“Not really. I guess I'm too... I don't know, ready.”

“Well, you should probably eat something, anyway. Get some food into that stomach of yours. It's not good to fly when you're empty.”

“I'll wait until Oak gets down here. Otherwise, he won't believe me and will make me eat more, which will make me sick, which makes him worry...” I rolled my eyes. “I don't want to start that cycle.”

“I don't blame you. Where are your lion men this morning? Off plotting our demise?”

I grinned. “Lion men?”

“They're from Gryffindor, aren't they?”

“So... that makes me a lion woman?”

Connor shook his head. “No, you're too pretty for that.”

I opened my mouth to deny his statement, but before I could a voice interrupted me. “Pretty? What an insult.”

We both looked up as James sat down on my other side, crossing his arms and staring darkly at Connor. “She's beautiful, and we all know it,” he snapped, reaching for a drink.

I flushed and looked down as Connor nodded sagely. “Of course. I was merely trying to save her from complete embarrassment.

“Fool's words. I thought you were in Ravenclaw, O'Brian?”

Connor stiffened, but I reached beneath the table and grabbed his knee, shaking my head ever so slightly. He relaxed and I let go, encouraging him to rise to his feet and say, “I'll be going. Good luck today, Elaina.”

“Thanks, Connor.”

He left and I turned on James, scowling. “What's your problem?” I asked.

“Nothing. I don't have a problem.”

“You obviously do. He was just being nice – you didn't need to get angry with him.”

“I want your head in the game, Ella, not in little petty romances.”

“There isn't a romance, James! We're just friends!”

He blinked. “Really?”

“Yes!”

“Oh. Well... I'm sorry, then.”

I rolled my eyes as he took a sip of pumpkin juice, the awkwardness in the air suddenly that much more obvious. After a moment, he asked cautiously, “How's the future occupation going?”

“I'm starting to think that I'll prefer wild beasts to this place.”

“Hogwarts isn't all that bad, is it?”

I sighed and shook my head. “No, it isn't. I'm sorry. I guess I'm just nervous.”

“Don't be. You'll rock it out there today.”

“At least the weather cleared up,” I muttered, looking up at the now blueish sky.

We sat in silence, James probably sensing that I needed a little bit of time to myself. In reality, I was as calm and cool as could be, but I didn't want him to know that; what kind of a person would I be if I was totally immune to anxiousness? Better to avoid the questions before they even arose.

P.J. was the next to arrive with Rhyad at her side, the two sitting down across from us as they started to pile food onto their plates. Even they were looking a little pale as they settled in, munching their way through toast and eggs. Annalie walked in with Oak some time later, when the hall contained a larger number of people, and all of us sat in a tense huddle until Serge came and joined us. I sighed as Oak forced food onto my plate, eating it as scathingly as possible as I chose to watch the students wandering around the hall. It was pretty evenly split, as far as supporters went, the space decorated with red and blue shirts, face-paints, and signs.

“You guys get pretty worked up for Quidditch, don't you?” I asked, absently tracing a scar across my forearm.

“Yeah. It's a big deal.” Serge said.

After that, no one spoke again.

Why were they all so stressed? It was just a game, not like it mattered all that much in the grand scheme of things; no one would die if we lost. The worst that would happen would be a heavy blow to the Gryffindor house pride, and even that could be repaired.

Their edginess was starting to affect me, making me shift uneasily. I began watching James's watch with hawk-like intensity, the hands moving more and more slowly as time trickled by.

Finally, at thirty minutes until ten, Oak rose. “We should get down to the pitch,” he said. “Suit up and everything.”

We all nodded in agreement, eager to be doing anything, as we stood. Together, we made our way through the suddenly applauding crowd, walking out the doors, down the hall, and into the biting cold November air.

I was ready. I was ready to run and jump and leap and fly. I was ready to move until I couldn't even twitch, to beat the other team into the ground, to be the strong, beautiful person that James saw me as.

But why did I suddenly want to vomit?
 

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